The REAL story of the “first” Thanksgiving
In December of 1620 a splinter group of England’s Puritan movement set anchor on American soil, a land already inhabited by the Wampanoag Indians. Having been unprepared for the bitter cold weather, and arriving too late to grow an adequate food supply, nearly half of the 100 settlers did not survive the winter.
On March 16th, 1621, a Native Indian named Samoset met the Englishmen for the first time. Samoset spoke excellent English, as did Squanto, another bilingual Patuxet who would serve as interpreter between the colonist and the Wampanoag Indians, who, lead by Chief Massasoit, were dressed as fierce warriors and outnumbered the settlers.
The Wampanoag already had a long history with the white man. For 100 years prior to the Pilgrim landing, they had encounters with European fishermen, as well as those who worked for slave traders. They had witnessed their communities being raided and their people stolen to be sold into slavery. They did not trust the newcomers.
But Squanto was an exception. He had lived with the British, after being captured by an earlier sailing vessel. He had a deep fondness for the Europeans – particularly that for a British Explorer named John Weymouth, who treated Squanto like a son.
Chief Massasoit and Samoset arrived at the colony with over 60 men, plus Squanto, who acted as a mediator between the two parties. Squanto was successful at making a peaceful agreement, though it is most likely that there was a great deal of friction between the Native community and the colonists. The Englishmen felt that the Native peoples were instruments of the devil because of their spiritual beliefs and trusted only the Christian-baptized Squanto. The Native people were already non-trusting of the white man, except for Squanto, who looked at the Europeans as being of “Johns People.”
It was Squanto who then moved to the English colony and taught them to hunt, trap, fish and to cultivate their own crops. He educated them on natural medicine and living off the land. A beloved friend of the Pilgrims, for if it wasn’t for him, they would not if survived. The Puritian Pilgrims thought of him as an Instrument of God.
Several months later the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims decided to meet again to negotiate a land treaty needed by the settlers. They hoped to secure land to build the Plymouth Plantation for the Pilgrims. The Native people agreed to meet for a 3-day negotiation “conference”. As part of the Wampanoag custom – or perhaps out of a sense of charity towards the host – the Native community agreed to bring most of the food for the event.
The peace and land negotiations were successful and the Pilgrims acquired the rights of land for their people.
In 1622 propaganda started to circulate about this “First Thanksgiving”. Mourts Relation, a book written to publicize the so-called “wonderfulness” of Plymouth, told of the meeting as a friendly feast with the Natives. The situation was glamorized by the Pilgrims, possibly in an effort to encourage more Puritans to settle in their area. By stating that the Native community was warm and open-armed, the newcomers would be more likely to feel secure in their journey to New England.
The sad, sad truth (what happened next)
What started as a hope for peace between the settlers and the Wampanoag, ended in the most sad and tragic way. The Pilgrims, once few in number, had now grown to well over 40,000 and the Native American strength had weakened to less than 3,000. By 1675, one generation later, tension had grown between the Europeans and the Native Indians. The Wampanoag called in reinforcements from other surrounding tribes.
Metacomet, heir and son of Chief Massasoit, became Chief of the Wampanoag Nation. The English, who referred to Metacomet as King Phillip, started a war between the two parties when they unjustly tried and convicted three innocent Wampanoags of murdering an Englishman, John Sassamon, even though it was well know and accepted that Sassamon’s death was truthfully caused by an accidental fall in a frozen pond.
Metacomet, furious and in despair, sought revenge for the deaths of his tribesmen by declaring war. The settlers killed another Native man, hence settling off the beginning of what is now known as “King Phillips War.” Many Native communities throughout Massachusetts and Connecticut rallied with the Wampanoags, but the power of the English was overpowering. Metacomet moved many of his people to New York. Sadly, his wife and 9-year-old son were captured and sold into slavery. Brokenhearted, he returned to his homeland – and soon killed. His death ends the Kings Phillips War and the remaining Wampanoags, and their allies, were either killed or deported as slaves for thirty shillings each. This slave trade was so successful that several Puritan ship owners began a slave-trading business by raiding the coast for Native American Indians and trading them for black slaves of Africa. The black slaves were then sold to colonists in the south. Hence, the Pilgrims were one of the founders of the American-based slave trading industry.
For many Native American Indians of present day, the traditional “Thanksgiving” holiday is not recognized as the Pilgrim/Indian day popularized in children’s history books; rather it is a day of sorrow and shame. Sorrow for the fallen lives of those who were lost so long ago, and shame for living in a country who honors people who used religion and self-righteousness to condone murder, treachery and slavery.
For the many in the Native community, “Thanksgiving” is a day to reflect on what has happened (past and present); to pray to the Creator that more people will know of the truth and show respect towards the fallen culture; to fast the body; to protest the commercialization of Thanksgiving; to share their time with the less fortunate in soup kitchens or shelters; and some take part in a family meal, honoring the spirit of Chief Massasoit and his initial charity and intentions of the Wampanoag Indians — who first came to initiate a peace agreement between them and the newcomers.
Celebrating the spirit of the holiday – without the propaganda that is attached, is a respectful way to share the day with the Native American people. Understanding the true historical significance of their contributions to the day, as well as what the consequences of their efforts led to be, is even more important. Without the assistance of Squanto, and the agreement for peace made between the two cultures, I find it unlikely that the settlers would have lived so well or even lived at all.
The Native people died so that the colony could flourish. They need to be remembered, respected and mourned. With them – the Native forefathers – is a much better place to lay your fondness and your thanks.
It is with their spirit of generosity and charity that you should place your foundation for a true and honest “Thanksgiving.”